by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
What is the healthiest diet? This question is being asked over and over again, and is being answered in a variety of different ways. The truth is there is no single correct answer. One approach that is gaining popularity is the raw food diet, where dieters adhere to a regimen of strictly uncooked food. The raw food diet has proponents and critics, but it’s important to get the facts before adopting 100 percent raw food or any specialized diet over the long term.
Here’s my breakdown on the pros and cons of the raw food diet:
The Promise of the Raw Food Diet
Raw food supporters maintain that raw foods contain natural enzymes and a host of other nutrients that normally break down during cooking. These enzymes improve digestion, helping the body absorb other beneficial nutrients. The end result is that cells bring in more nutrition and thrive.
Raw Food’s Technical Difficulty
While the theory behind raw foods is plausible in many respects, it runs contrary to traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic teachings. These ancient health systems assert that nutrients from cooked food are more digestible because the cooking process breaks them down into smaller components, thereby supporting our “digestive fire.” This term is not referring to the type of “digestive fire” we typically associate with heart burn, for example, but to a warmth and movement that brings vitality to the digestive tract and maintains our overall health.
Raw Foods Are Cool
One interesting fact to point out is that raw food diets tend to be more popular in warmer climates, such as Hawaii, Florida, and Southern California. This makes sense, as traditional Chinese medicine asserts that raw foods have a cooling effect on the body. Someone with a lot of inflammation, or heat, may find balance and greater vitality with a raw food diet. On the other hand, someone who frequently feels cold can grow weaker on a long-term raw food program.
Cooked Food Is Nutritious
Some nutrients become more bioavailable once they are heated. Lycopene, for example, an antioxidant found in tomatoes and other foods, is shown to be more nutritionally available when cooked. Vegetables such as kale, spinach, onions, and garlic are also shown to be more nutritious when cooked because light cooking releases compounds that might otherwise go undigested. Of course, overcooking foods, particularly meats, produces acrylamide and other chemicals that contribute to inflammation and cancer. So, as always, balance is in order. For optimal results, I recommend light steaming or sautéing at moderate temperatures. This will help make nutrients more available and easier to absorb, without producing harmful by-products of overcooking.
Healthy Digestion is A Real Issue
It’s true that many people are enzyme deficient. In this case, I recommend enzyme supplements because they are designed to survive the acidic environment in the stomach and release their digestive benefits once they reach the small intestines, where most nutrients are absorbed. Regardless of your diet, a digestive formula that contains digestive enzymes, including amylase, alpha-galactosidase, protease, phytase, invertase, and lipase, can assist in food breakdown and nutrient absorption. In addition, the minerals zinc and chromium support digestive function, while cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and other herbs strengthen the digestive system, alleviate occasional digestive discomfort, and promote healthy liver function.
Balance is the Only Real Answer
There are numerous well-documented benefits to eating large amounts of fresh produce. But my advice is to strive for a well-rounded diet that incorporates raw and lightly cooked foods, raw healthy fats, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and organic fruits and vegetables. This balanced approach will go a long way toward providing you the nutrients you need to maintain overall health, clarity, and vitality naturally.
The Bottom Line
No single diet offers a magical formula for vibrant health. In fact, no single diet works for everyone. While raw foods may not be ideal for people with weak digestion, such a diet can offer significant results for others. As a holistic practitioner, I believe that a 100 percent raw food diet is not the best choice for everyone. Over time, a 100 percent raw food approach can place undue stress on the digestive system and cause weakness in certain people. While the abundance of fresh produce is no doubt beneficial, most of us need some balance between cooked and raw foods for optimal vitality over the long term.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.